(Content note: death, dysfunctional families, serious daddy issues.)
Don’t ever say that Life doesn’t appear to operate with a very macabre sense of humor. It’s ironic that my last post was about how precious life is, and about how much what we do matters in this life because this life is all we get. An hour or so ago, right as I sat down to write a post today, I got word that my father had passed away. (I apologize in advance if this post contains more information than you ever needed about my personal life.) Today, let me show you how weird people can get about love, and yet how precious it is for all the weirdness that erupts around it.
A Life of Facades.
LISTER: So why are you so completely blown away about him dying then?
RIMMER: Oh, it doesn’t mean to say I didn’t respect him, didn’t look up to
him. It was only natural — he was my father.
LISTER: There’s nothing natural about your family, Rimmer.
RIMMER: It’s just I always wanted just once, just once, for him to say to
me, “Well done.”
LISTER: For what?
RIMMER: For something, for anything. I wanted him to be proud of me,
just once. And now …
Red Dwarf, “Better Than Life“
Not to speak ill of the dead or whatever, but my dad was, simply put, an asshole.
In fact, he was very proud of that fact.
He could be quite charming when he wanted to be–he had that very gruff-yet-boyish demeanor that appeals to certain kinds of maternal ladies. If my dad possessed a mutant superpower, it was pissing women off. He’d find a good woman and charm her little cotton socks off, but eventually the boyish act would wear thin, and then the arguments would start.
He had no idea how to keep people in his life. I knew that this shortcoming came from a father who was, himself, a devil incarnate; when he died, nobody mourned, not even his own mother (my great-grandmother). After growing up with that monster, it’s a miracle that my dad turned out to be as as marginally functional as he was. I’ve always known about his upbringing, and my sympathy made my other feelings curdle and roil all complicated in my mind for years.
His self-medication of choice after escaping that hellish environment was booze–the cheap, hard stuff. He was in and out of treatment for his alcoholism for most of his adult life.
But he desperately needed something else: he loved women, and he needed the validation that came from a romantic partner’s admiration. He fed on that admiration like a daisy feeds on sunshine, turning its face up toward the light.
To get what he craved from women, he cultivated a very cute, boyish persona. But like we see so often in people who have been raised in very dysfunctional environments, he couldn’t keep up his charade forever. He’d get frustrated or angry and his violent, controlling side would burst free. That boyish act would abruptly wear thin, and the woman involved would break things off.
My parents broke up during my mother’s last recurrence of cancer. He’d found a woman who admired him and gave him lots of validation and admiration. Naturally, he wanted to be with her instead.
Because of that decision and its particularly awful timing, I was probably the last relative on my mother’s side to chase after any kind of relationship with him.
Losing the Last Tie That Binds.
Eventually, though, even I had to cut ties for my own sanity. He told me constantly through his behavior, I’ll do nothing whatsoever to maintain this relationship, and you need to be okay with that. Do everything I tell you to do, agree with me in every particular, and admire me without reservations, or there’ll be drama. Hell, there might be drama even then, and you need to be okay with that too.
I had resisted for years the message he was sending, but I finally heard it and acted upon it.
The lovely, competent lady he’d remarried dumped him a few years after the wedding, when his alcoholism roared back to life. She’d finally heard the same message that I had.
He found a new girlfriend a year or so before his death–a significantly younger woman who (initially at least) loved how in-shape and active he was, how boyish and charming. And he was. My dad had to skip leg day thanks to a serious knee injury, but bro, he totally lifted. But the oh-so-charming act wore thin for her, too, and she dumped him just a couple of weeks before his death.
He was now in his late 50s. Now he had nobody to fake anything for and no new sources of validation and admiration anywhere on his horizon.
So he began drinking in earnest.
When my dad’s throat began to hurt, he didn’t know what the problem was. The now-ex-girlfriend drove him to the ER at his request. I can see the setup in House now: “Adult man, late-50s, presents with serious throat pain; is obviously quite alcoholic. Differentials!” From what I’ve read, this one’s a pretty easy diagnosis, though. Probably it’d be more likely to show up on Scrubs.
The doctor told him to schedule some liver scans ASAP and for the love of little orange kittens to stop drinking NOW.
My dad didn’t heed either directive. He went home instead.
A week later, he left work early because his side was hurting worse than ever and his throat burned so much he could barely speak. He never showed up for work the next day, nor the next, at which point his co-workers got concerned.
His co-workers had to call the cops to check on him–and the cops, doing a wellness check, found his body. He had died, they thought, very soon after he’d gotten home on that first day. His esophagus had completely ruptured, very probably because of the amount of alcohol he was drinking. Folks, that is a really nasty, painful, messy way to die. And he endured it alone.
Finding Out Much Later.
By that time, my sister and I had been written out of his will. He didn’t even have contact information for us. His ex-girlfriend was very surprised about receiving the bulk of his minimal estate–probably because they’d only just broken up and he hadn’t had time to rewrite it again. (Yes, he was one of those people who constantly update their wills to reflect their current affections.)
That aforementioned lovely lady he’d remarried didn’t get remembered in the will either. In fact, none of us were even mentioned in his obituary. The only reason I even know about his death at all is that he’d forgotten to write the three of us out of one small policy he’d had. The lawyer, an older, refined, and genial Southern gentleman, somehow tracked me down. He expressed great surprise and discomfort about the fact that I literally hadn’t known about my own father’s death. I’m just as shocked.
Love in the Ruins.
So as you can imagine, I’m feeling very torn. Yes, we were estranged, but he was still my dad. I guess I always had a small sliver of hope that he’d get his shit together, contact me, and maybe re-establish some kind of relationship. The very last time we had any communication, it’d been a very dramatic showdown in which he made some ill-advised ultimatums–which I flatly rejected. I told him that when he was ready, I’d be right there, but I wasn’t going to tear myself apart any longer trying to please someone who kept stepping on me.
I begged him to reconsider the path he was going down and told him that our relationships are the only things we really have, when push comes to shove. My entreaties did no good at all. All he wanted out of me right then was an abject apology for defying him.
And the years began to pass.
I knew where my dad’s Facebook page was–he habitually used an easy-to-find pseudonym–and sure, I’d noticed that there were no updates after the summertime, but the last thing I’d ever have thought was that my tanned, super-health-conscious, gym-rat dad might have died. He went snorkeling and vacationing in the Bahamas; he had a lot of Facebook people who commented on his page. The last entry visible is a photo of him taken a month before he died, along with silly meme pictures of his favorite animal. Guess what it was.
I thought he’d just figured out privacy settings at last.
No. He’d died, and nobody had even turned the page into a memorial.
A Dying Creature’s Last Defense.
My dad drove away every single person who ever cared about him. Had he reached out to me even once, I’d have responded immediately–but he was too hobbled and shackled by his own dysfunction to do it. Instead, he drank himself to death. He was dead for two days before anybody even noticed–and even then it was people from his job, not loved ones. He had nobody at all in his life who talked to him or saw him so often that they noticed a sudden lack of response for days.
And now he’s gone forever.
The potential for us is gone forever. The possibilities have been eliminated.
What’s the lesson here?
“Don’t be an asshole”? “Don’t alienate your family”? “Don’t drive away people who love you”? “Get therapy if you realize you have trouble maintaining relationships or you have addiction issues”?
To hell with that noise.
The people who desperately need to hear that stuff won’t hear it. The people who do hear it already know it.
There is no cosmic lesson. This is just life.
My dad utilized a shtick that served him in good stead while he was young. Eventually he ran out of people who responded to it. He couldn’t adapt to his new reality. It’s just that simple. And it’s just that sad.
When Ohana Doesn’t Mean Family.
I’m not going to chirp at you some wishy-washy Dear Abby pablum about never ever cutting ties, ohana means family, don’t ever burn bridges, or any of that feel-good stuff. Bloodless aphorisms just don’t work in the real world all the time. I still think I did the right thing, as sad as I am that I had to do it. I still think that the chaos and violence he introduced into my childhood had a lot to do with my conversion to fundamentalism later. That chaos likely influenced my decision never to have children of my own.
Even long after my deconversion, my dad’s erratic and mean-spirited behavior caused me panic attacks and horrific nightmares at a time when I could scarce afford them. His resurgence of alcoholism wouldn’t have made things any easier. If you’re that stressed out about anybody in your life, then you’re allowed to do whatever you need to do to get to a place of safety. (For that matter, you’re allowed to do whatever you think you need to do regardless.)
There’s no ineffable force in the Universe overseeing human relationships and doling out lessons and promises and rewards–or punishments. There’s no force in the world that cleans up our loose ends or ties up all our plots into neat boxes with neat bows. There’s just a limited amount of time that we get in which we can make a difference–or be a thorn in the side to our fellow human beings. If we waste it, then we’ll never get it back.
You can’t control what someone else does, but you can make choices for yourself that move you forward and improve yourself and make your time on this good dark earth time well spent.
We’ll never be here again.
Rest in peace, Dad. May you find the peace in oblivion that you never had in life. I loved you, despite it all, because of it all.
This was where I first felt a sudden wild surge of sympathy for Rimmer.
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(Cas tidied up this post a bit on February 14, 2019.)